Content Warnings: Suicide or Self Harm, Depiction of Death or Terminal Illness
The old house is haunted by you. Dusty sheets cover the furniture and the art like ghosts. Long hallways lit by sconces display portraits of you and your father and other family members I don’t recognize. He was the youngest of a large family. You were his only child. Your face, smiling in the photos taken when you were a child and somber in the ones taken when you were older, watches me, follows me, as I walk through the house for the first time. I want to take them all down and bury them in the woods. There are no photos of me and Jack. I wonder if our grandfather even knew about us. You used to say to me, I’m going to get clean, baby, and we’re going get out of here. I’ll get a job and we’ll live with my dad in the Poconos. I didn’t know he died a few years ago.
Jack makes a path through the overgrown yard to unload the car while I explore the house. As a kid, seeing Jack was always exciting because he would bring toys for my birthday and Christmas. He was more like an uncle than a brother, as he was so much older than me. He told me once he felt guilty. That during one of your stints in jail he went to live with his dad, who gave him a good childhood and put him through college. That whoever my dad is, never came for me, and all I’ve ever known is you. When the social worker asked if I had any relatives, Jack was the only one I could call. He rushed from D.C. and that was when we found out about our grandfather and about the house. I asked the lawyer if we could sell it and he said, As I informed your mother when your grandfather passed, the house is in a trust that prevents its sale until the last surviving relative dies. I wonder if when I die, I’ll haunt this house too.
Sometimes all I see is you. You, with a needle in your arm, cold on the floor. I screamed and called the paramedics when the Narcan didn’t bring you back. Jack came the next day. He sat next to me on the sofa and said, Sorry about Mom.
We let the words hang in the air until Jack handed me a cold Burger King bag and said, I figured you haven’t eaten. I took the bag and dug in. I probably looked like I had been crying because I hadn’t used since I found you. I suppose dopesickness can look like grief. Jack draped his arm around me and we sat there thinking about you. I thought about how I had bound myself to your sadness until it became my own and how, now that you’re gone, maybe I have a chance at being happy. Jack is nice. He took me in seemingly without a second thought. I cautiously let myself begin to form an image of a perfect life in the country. I imagine a new school, new friends, swimming in the lake. Maybe Jack and I will take up fishing or boating. I’ll buy a bikini. I’ll learn how to kayak.
I figured I could find your bedroom, but they all look the same. Done up like guest rooms by the housekeeper while your father was sick. The place looks more like a bed and breakfast than a home. I settle on a room that gets a lot of light and has a view of the backyard. The trees sway in the wind and rustle softy like faraway cars on the freeway. I lie on the bed and a plume of dust rises around my body, glowing gold in the sunlight. A cloud passes in front of the sun and the dust disappears. I sneeze. Was this your room when you were my age? Did your father try to erase you when you left?
I hear Jack slowly coming up the stairs. He stops at the doorway with a box of my things.
“It’s strange being here, isn’t it?” Jack says.
“Yeah,” I say.
Jack looks around the room contemplatively. In a soft voice he goes, “It makes you wonder what it might have been like if things were different.”
What it might have been like to have a grandfather.
“Don’t,” I go.
Jack presses his lips together apologetically and sets down the box at the foot of the bed.
“The movers won’t be here for a while. You can get some rest if you want. There’s a mower and some old gasoline in the garage. I’m going to see if it works and try to do something about this lawn.”
I nod and roll over to face the window.
Jack’s footsteps recede down the staircase and the wind dies down. The whole house falls silent. I miss the roar of the city. How it could drown out my thoughts. I didn’t think I would, but I do. I thought I could leave the city behind and you with it. But you’re still here. You’re in every splinter of wood and every peeling fleck of paint. Even now I can see you, a little girl in loose socks running across the floorboards, chasing after your father. He scoops you up and you shriek with laughter. I see you older, sullen, resting your chin on the windowsill, gazing at the ducks in backyard pond. I start crying. Quietly, so Jack can’t hear me.
I wake up a couple hours later to my phone buzzing beside me. I pick it up. It’s Angel.
“Hey,” I say.
There’s an awkward silence as Angel decides what to say.
Finally: “I heard about your mom.”
“Where are you?” Angel askes.
“The Poconos,” I say.
“Did you decide to take a vacation or something?”
I roll my eyes even though he can’t see me.
“No, I’m living here with my brother now,” I tell him.
“What’s the address?”
“I want to see you. What’s the address?”
“Do you even have a car?”
“Yeah, I sometimes make runs up to Boston for my cousin.”
I hesitate. Not because I don’t want to see Angel. But because of what him coming here would mean.
In the silence that hangs between me and Angel, I begin to think of you again. The sick thing is, the more I think of you, the more I want to get high. I see us on the floor together. You’re tying off and telling me, like you always told me, Never do it like this. And I’m scraping lines together with a SNAP card. You shoot up and slump back against the wall. A smoldering cigarette hangs from your limp lips. I catch it before it can fall into your lap and take a drag. Your breathing is slow and shallow. I snub out what’s left of the cigarette into the ashtray, pull back my hair, do a line, and let myself fall.
“Erin?” Angel says.
“Sorry,” I say and then I tell him the address. “Come late and park along the driveway in the trees so Jack doesn’t see you.”
Angel says, “Okay,” and hangs up.
I notice the moving truck outside and I go downstairs to help Jack unpack. Jack has removed the sheets from the furniture and had pushed some pieces to the side to make room for the movers.
“Are you okay?” Jack asks when he sees me.
Jack shrugs. “I don’t know. You look like you’ve seen a ghost.”
I bend down to pick up a box and ask, “Where do you want these?”
Jack points to the label on the box. It says “Plates.”
“The kitchen,” he says, half-closing one eye. “Are you sure you’re all right?”
I take the box into the kitchen. Jack watches me for a moment and then resumes directing the movers.
That night, after movers left and Jack and I couldn’t unpack any more boxes or rearrange any more old, dusty furniture, we collapse onto the sofa.
“You have a lot of shit,” I tell him.
Jack chuckles. “When you live alone and you don’t go out much, you spend your money a lot of shit.”
“Is that why you left D.C., because you were alone?”
Jack shrugs and leans his head back against the sofa, looking up.
“I think I just needed a clean break.”
Jack’s eyes are far away as he stares at the ceiling. I study him and wonder in what ways you hurt him. Jack rubs his leg and his hand brushes something in his pocket. The distant expression is gone. He looks down and pats his pocket as if he forgot there was something there. Jack pulls out a deck of cards and hands them to me.
“Did Mom ever play ‘Go Fish’ with you?”
I take the cards and turn them over in my hands. I give Jack a look.
“What the hell is ‘Go Fish?’”
Jack smiles in his sad way. “I didn’t think so.”
He teaches me the rules. We sit cross legged on the sofa, facing each other.
“It’s easy to focus on the bad memories of her, but there were good ones too,” Jack says while moving the cards in his hand around.
“Like what?” I interrogate.
“Like playing “Go Fish” or going to the park or renting Toy Story from Blockbuster. I was in and out of foster care a lot for a couple years, but she fought to keep me until it became impossible.” Jack shrugs. “I’m not saying she was a good mother or even a good person, but there were times when she tried to be.”
He sighs deeply. That faraway look comes back. I realize for the first time that Jack is grieving you. And it makes me angry.
“Do you have any threes?” Jack says.
“Go fish,” I say, and I put down my cards and stand up.
“What did I say?” Jack asks, spreading his arms.
“Nothing,” I say and head for the stairs. “I’m going to bed.”
“She was my mother too, you know.”
I wait for Angel in my bed, furiously fighting back tears, fighting back the sick feeling, fighting back you. I want to punch something. I get up and punch the wall. My fist explodes with pain and that’s how you make your way in. You slip in through my pain and suddenly I’m on the floor clutching my hand, gasping for breath in between sobs. I hear Jack say “Erin?” through my closed door. He tries the doorknob, but I locked it.
“Go away!” I tell him.
He hesitates. The floor in the hallway creaks as he shifts his wight between feet. I take a deep breath and try to steady my voice.
“I’m okay. Can you just leave me alone?”
Jack sighs. “All right.”
I hear Jack walk to his bedroom down the hall and shut the door. I wipe my eyes and blow my nose. My phone buzzes in my pocket.
“I’m here,” Angel texts me.
“My brother just went to bed. Wait fifteen minutes and then come around back.” “OK.”
There are two staircases in the house. The main staircase in the front of the house and a servant staircase in the back. The servant staircase is steep and narrow and I’m not sure Jack even knows it’s there. I go down the servant stairs as quietly as I can and let Angel in through the back door in the kitchen. He looks around.
“Nice place,” he says.
Angel moves my hair out of my eye. “Have you been crying?”
This is the first time I’ve seen Angel since I’ve been sober. I didn’t realize how strongly my body associates him with getting high. Everything about him: the slight warmth of being close to him, the smoky smell of his t-shirt, the quiet thrum of his voice.
“No,” I say as my fingertips begin to buzz, my vision blurs. I’m suddenly dizzy. I can nearly feel the dull sting of dope hitting my nostrils, the back of my throat. I pull Angel upstairs and into my room.
“Do you have it?” I ask.
Angel shoves his hands into his pockets and leans against the wall. He eyes me.
“Are you clean right now?”
“Since… you know.”
Angel seems frozen, eyes fixed on mine.
Angel shrugs. “I don’t think I’ve ever seen you like this.”
A lump forms in my throat. I try to swallow.
“I can’t get her out of my fucking head.”
“She was your mom,” Angel says. “You’re not supposed to feel nothing.”
I feel the rage I felt toward Jack simmering in my chest again, this time directed at Angel. I lunge toward him, toward his pockets.
“Give it to me,” I growl in a voice I don’t recognize.
Angel shoves me to the ground. Hard. I hit my head and cradle it in my arms.
“Don’t ever do something stupid like that again,” Angel says.
“Shut up, he’ll hear you,” I groan.
I hear Jack’s door creak open. I hold my breath. Angel stands still with his hands in his pockets, indifferent. Finally, Jack’s door shuts with a small thud. I let out my breath. Angel crouches down and looks at me.
“Why do you care so much if he hears?”
“I don’t want him to know about me.”
“He’s not like us, is he?”
I shake my head.
Angel’s voice softens. “Don’t you want to stay clean?”
I pull myself up onto an elbow and push the hair away from my eyes. “Since when do you care if I’m clean?”
Angel sits back on his heels. He bites the inside of his cheek.
“If you don’t have it, you should leave,” I tell him.
“I wouldn’t have brought it if I’d known you were a week sober.”
“You’re so righteous.”
I sit up and raise my chin as if daring Angel to hit me, though of course he never would.
“It’s just our nature, right?” he says. “It’s who we are—” he stands and shoves his hand into his pocket, withdrawing a wad of plastic packets, rubber banded together. Angel’s eyes drift between it and me. “—Dealer and junkie,” he says, punctuating the last word by flinging the drugs at me.
My tongue sticks to the roof of my mouth in anticipation. I collect the bags and move to the nightstand where I dump out the contents of one bag.
“How much do you have?” Angel asks from behind me.
“It’s in my backpack,” I tell him.
Angel unzips my backpack and rummages through it, taking out a wad of cash and counting it.
“Where’d you get all this?” he asks.
“Tips,” I lie.
Actually, I used the school library to print fake tickets to a fake comedy club and sold them to tourists on a street corner. Just like you told me to do.
I scrape together two neat lines on the nightstand and roll up a dollar bill. But for a moment, I hesitate. Angel’s voice echoes: Don’t you want to stay clean? Do I? I can feel you over my shoulder, like a breath on my cheek or a whisper in my ear. You surround me as the house surrounds me. I can’t fight you anymore. I have reserved myself to the reality that I will never escape you. I bend down and do the lines in rapid succession.
I fall back onto the hardwood floor. My hair encircles my face like a halo. Warmth spreads from my chest to my whole body. My heartbeat slows, my breath shallows. I feel like I’m sinking, as if the floor is pudding or quicksand. I stare at the ceiling. The cracks in the plaster seem to spread and spiderweb into shapes and images, jagged pencil strokes on paper. I always thought of it as lucid dreaming while awake. I see myself at school, dodging the gazes of other students in the hallways and classrooms. Everyone knew I hung out with a known drug dealer. One day a boy on the track team gave me a black eye when I shoved him for reaching under my skirt in the hall. Angel pried the truth from me and the next day he showed up at my school and broke the boy’s nose and dislocated his shoulder in the parking lot. From that day on, I was untouchable, but I was also alone. The words junkie girl followed me ceaselessly.
My eyes move to the wallpaper of the bedroom, its colorful designs seem to rise into the ceiling. From it grows trees and long grass, a lake with leaves floating on the surface and ducks and geese. Every inch of my skin tingles with energy. My mind feels infinite. I hope this is what death is like.
I begin to come down from the rush. The high subsides to a dull buzz that flows through me like electricity. I sit up, my head hangs forward and slowly lolls from side to side. I notice Angel beside me, his hand on my back. I can’t read his expression. I rest my head on his shoulder.
“I’m sorry for what I said,” I mumble.
“I know,” Angel says softly.
“I don’t want you to leave.”
“I’ll stay tonight.”
Angel lays back on my bed and rests his head on my stomach. I prop myself up against the headboard. I play with Angel’s long, dark hair as he takes a drag from a tightly-rolled joint. He passes it over his shoulder to me. I pinch it between my thumb and forefinger, take a small hit, and pass it back. In the same way heroin makes me feel like I might sink into the floor, weed makes me feel like I might float through the ceiling. Like the spirit leaving the body. I picture this moment but from outside my body. I’m looking down from the ceiling at my and Angel’s bodies arranged in a “T” shape on the bed. Angel blows smoke rings that drift up to me and disperse.
“What do you think happens when you die?” I ask.
Angel cranes his neck to look back at me. I trace the edges of his cheekbones, his jaw, his short goatee with my fingertips. I notice of his long eyelashes when he blinks. Angel lets the joint go out, puts it aside, and rests his hands over his middle thoughtfully, fingers interlocked.
Finally, he says, “I think when you’re dead, you’re dead. That’s it.” Angel pauses for a while and then continues, “But maybe it’s like dreaming, you know? You get to relive all the good moments.”
“What if there were no good moments?”
“Dios mío, Erin. I don’t know.”
Angel takes a breath after a while and says in a low voice, “This is a good moment, isn’t it? I wouldn’t mind reliving this forever.”
I don’t know. I suppose that right now I feel happy. But even happiness has come to feel like merely an expression of a deeper sadness.
“Of course,” I reply, wrapping my arms around Angel’s head and burying my nose in his hair. “This is good.”
We stay like this for a few minutes, maybe even an hour. I like how I can just sit with Angel in silence and time doesn’t matter.
“It’s getting late,” Angel says. “I have to leave before your brother wakes up tomorrow.”
I say nothing. I just want to lie here, enjoying the lightness of being high and the feeling of Angel’s skin against mine. Angel moves to get under the covers and go to sleep. I watch him and I consider pulling him close and kissing him. The thought surprises me. I’ve never thought about Angel in that way before. We met my freshman year of high school. He was a senior. I was already using and he could tell. We came from the same world. For him, dealing is the family business. He told me he hates dealing, but he was born into it. I told him he should get high with me. He refused, but he looked out for me after that.
Angel begins to sit up. “Your brother,” he says. “Do you know him very well?”
I shrug. “I’ve known him most of my life. But I’ve only met him a few of times.”
Angel nods and scratches his goatee.
“You don’t have to worry about him,” I tell Angel, touching his shoulder. “Trust me.”
I wonder about the sensation of being in love. If it’s like a drug. Fuck men, you used to tell me. They’ll always let you down. They’ll use you and throw you away when they’re through. But the only person who ever let me down like that was you.
At least I was there.
Look at what you’ve done to me.
I didn’t force you to do anything. You made your own decisions.
I’m sixteen. I shouldn’t have to make my own decisions.
You’re ungrateful for the sacrifices I made for us. Ungrateful.
Please, just leave me alone.
I clutch my head and bury my face in my pillow.
“Erin?” Angel says turning to me. He touches my back.
“Leave me alone. Leave me alone.”
“What did I do?”
“Not you,” I say, taking Angel’s hand and holding it tightly. He rubs my knuckle with his thumb until I fall asleep.
Angel is gone when I wake up. I check the time on my phone. It’s past noon. I open my blinds and look outside. The sky is cloudy, the wind has picked up. It looks like it will rain soon. I’m about to turn away, but I notice Jack sitting in the grass at the pond. I change my clothes and go out to him. As I get closer I can tell he’s throwing rocks into the pond.
“Hey,” I say.
Jack says nothing. He chucks another rock, causing some nearby geese to fly a few yards away.
I sit down next to him and hug my knees. We sit in silence for a while. I think the silence makes you more powerful. Your presence grows stronger and your grip on me tightens. I’m further braiding you into my thoughts. There are no sirens or car horns or shouting on the street to fill this silence, so I fill it with—
“I don’t know what I’m doing,” Jack says, interrupting my thoughts.
“What do you mean?”
“Who was in your room last night?” Jack asks, turning to look at me for the first time.
His tone scares me. Not because I’m afraid of him, but because I can sense that the perfect image I had formed of our new life in the country is beginning to fall apart.
“There wasn’t—,” I begin to say, trying to preserve the image.
“Don’t lie to me,” Jack interjects. “I don’t deserve that.”
“He’s just a friend.”
“Did he give you drugs?”
“No,” I lie.
“I could smell the weed.”
“Okay, we smoked some weed. That was it.”
“Fuck, Erin. Stop lying to me.”
Jack throws another rock and stands up. He begins to walk back to the house. I hug my knees tighter and rub my legs.
“It was just weed, Jack, I promise.”
Jack keeps walking. I get up and chase after him.
“Jack, wait, please.”
I tug on his arm and force him to look at me.
“You’re right, I lied. I’m sorry. But I’ll get clean. I did it before.”
“First the lies, now the false promises,” Jack says.
“You’re just like her.”
It’s as if he stomped on my ribcage. I suddenly can’t breathe. Jack leaves me in the yard and storms into the house. Jack went too far. I’m not like you. I will never be like you. When I finally catch my breath and I go inside I find Jack on the couch. He looks at me with a blank expression. I halt in my tracks. I have a terrible feeling.
“What did you do?”
“It’s gone,” Jack says. “I found it all and flushed it.”
“Why would you do that?” I scream. I want to hit him. I try to calm down, but I’m panicking. I’m crying and I feel like I’m choking. I hate Jack. I hate that his father took him away from you and I had to stay. I hate that he has good memories of you and all I have are memories of heroin. You did this to me. I’m a mess because you did this to me. You’re in the walls, in the ceiling laughing down at me. Shut up. Shut up. Get out of my head. I press my hands to my ears but that just makes you louder.
It’s this house. I have to get as far away from here as possible. I run out the door and head for the woods. There is no path, so I find myself running through sharp branches and tripping over large roots. But I don’t care. I run and run until I can’t anymore. I trip and fall onto the dead leaves of the forest floor. I wonder if I stay here and lie really still, the forest might think I’m dead too and start decomposing me. I stay like this for a long time. I listen to the birds chirping overhead and the squirrels chattering and wind blowing through the trees. After a while I notice Jack beside me. He touches my shoulder. I sit up and shove him away.
“I shouldn’t have said what I said,” Jack says softly.
“But you meant it,” I shoot back, without looking at him.
Jack sighs, “I did, but I was wrong. I reacted like a ten-year-old boy whose mom is about to go to prison again and not like a big brother.”
I don’t say anything. I want to hold on to this anger. I want to continue to hate Jack. Even though I know it won’t last. Finally, I turn to him. Once again, he’s staring at nothing. Can he not look at me for even a second?
Jack says in a whisper, “Erin,” and points at something. I follow his line of sight to a doe and her fawn eating berries from a bush a few yards away. They must have been here this whole time. I’ve never seen a deer before in person. I’ve never even seen Bambi. I find myself transfixed. We watch them for a long time. The pair graze slowly. As they move from bush to bush, the doe walks out ahead and turns back every few paces to make sure the fawn is following closely.
I take a shaky breath. “When I was thirteen, I told Mom that I wanted to kill myself and at first, she didn’t look up, or really acknowledge me at all, she just continued what she was doing. I think she was watching Seinfeld and smoking a cigarette. Mom, I said. Did you hear me? She kind of pressed the heel of her hand against her temple like I was giving her a headache and she said in a voice that was kinder than I expected, Come here, honey. So, I sat next to her on the ratty awful couch, and she played with my hair for a while. You’re so pretty, you know that? I shook my head no. I was pretty like you once. Before you and Jack were born. She paused for a moment and then said, You know, when I want to kill myself, I do this instead. She held up a small bag of dope. She chuckled to herself as if she’d made a joke then she fell quiet, and I studied the drugs in her hand. So we sat there, watching Seinfeld until Mom tied off one last time and went to bed, leaving her dope inside her pack of cigarettes on the coffee table. I chewed my nails on the couch for a while then I took the dope out and made a tiny little line on the coffee table and I snorted it like I’d seen her do plenty of times before. And for the first time in forever, I felt happy. I felt like nothing mattered. The cruel kids at school, the gunshots outside our building, the men Mom let into the apartment all the time, everything melted away. And in their place was this beautiful feeling. I never wanted to feel anything except for that feeling ever again. That was the first time I used. The second time, Mom was with me, holding my hair back as I leaned over the coffee table.”
“Jesus,” Jack says.
“I am like her,” I say.
“I am too, you know,” Jack replies.
I think about the little traces of you I’ve noticed in Jack. Your soft-spoken voice, your fidgety nervousness, your faraway eyes that would never meet mine.
“I wish I was like her the way you are,” I mutter.
“I have something for you,” Jack says. He reaches into his pocket and pulls out two Polaroids. He holds on to one and hands the other to me. It’s a self-shot photo of you and me when I was a baby. You’re smiling, pressing the side of my little face against the side of yours. The Polaroid in Jack’s hand is a similar photo of you and him when he was a baby. I look at Jack quizzically.
“I found these in the garage when I went looking for the mower,” Jack explains. “They were in a box with some other old family pictures of her.”
I stare at the photo in my hand. On the back, you scribbled, simply, “To Dad.” It reads like a letter you wanted to write, but didn’t. I wonder in what ways your father hurt you.
“What are you going to do with yours?” I ask.
“I don’t know,” Jack replies. “But I think I’ll hold on to it for a while.”
A part of me still wants to bury the Polaroid out here. To go back to the house and bury the whole box of photos. I want to erase you. But you’re not in the photos, you’re not even in the house. You’re in me. And I don’t know how else to exorcise you except by using. Even if it’s only for a few moments at a time.
“Here,” I say, handing the Polaroid back to Jack.
Jack stands up and returns the photos to his pocket. “Maybe one day we’ll be able to look at them differently.”
Jack holds out his hand and helps me to my feet. The deer are much farther away now. But even from a distance our movement spooks them. They freeze for a moment, the doe whips her head around, trying to find us through the trees.
“Do you want to get clean?” Jack asks.
I turn to him and realize that for the first time he’s looking right at me.
“I don’t know,” I reply. I can’t tell him that I’m already thinking about how to replace the dope he flushed. That even though a part of me still wants to get clean for good, I want to wait until after the next high.
“Don’t make me watch you kill yourself like Mom.”
Jack makes it clear that the conversation isn’t over, but he leaves it at that for now.
My phone buzzes in my pocket with a text message. It’s from Angel. Jack presses his lips together but says nothing. The doe and her fawn begin to gallop away. I watch them disappear into the trees. “Goodbye,” I whisper. The sky rumbles and it begins to rain gently. I hold out my hand to catch a rain drop. Then Jack drapes his arm around my shoulder, and we head back to the old house together.
About the Author
Jacob Dimpsey is a writer living in Camp Hill, PA. His work has previously appeared in The Blood Pudding and Funicular Magazine among others and is forthcoming in the Santa Fe Writers Project Quarterly.